A More Constructive Approach to Fighting Childhood Obesity

A recent column by Huffington Post contributor Donald Cohen would lead readers to believe that the food industry -- and anyone else who disagrees with the government's proposed guidelines on the marketing of food to children -- simply doesn't care about our nation's childhood obesity epidemic.

Mr. Cohen opened his piece by commenting that food manufacturers are casting apples and peas as "job-killers" that will devastate our economy. A more constructive approach to discussing the issue at hand might be to start with what everyone on both sides of this debate can agree upon: childhood obesity is a serious problem in our country. Where we differ is with solutions.

One of the major problems with the government's proposed guidelines is that even certain foods of the "peas and apples" variety would fail to meet its exceedingly stringent nutritional guidelines. In a bizarre outcome that could only be borne from a twisted web of bureaucracy, the proposed guidelines seek to cap sodium, sugar and fat content but wholly ignore caloric count, a major nutritional barometer for obesity. As a result, healthy foods such as plain Cheerios, peanut butter, some yogurts and even bottled water fail to meet the proposed nutritional standards and would thus be deemed "unmarketable" to children. It seems irrational that anyone truly committed to reducing childhood obesity in America would welcome this outcome.

Mr. Cohen then argues that it is disingenuous to argue that the proposed guidelines won't reduce childhood obesity and pose an intrusive overreach into an industry that is already reducing its advertising to children. Both arguments are valid, and they don't contradict each other.

In a policy paper I recently co-authored for the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy, we explain that these guidelines will not reduce the obesity rate because they don't address the real triggers for obesity in America: an increasingly inactive lifestyle coupled with lack of access to healthful and affordable foods in low-income, rural and underserved communities, and variables like household structure, education and language, poverty, employment status and income, all of which influence the probability for being obese for children aged 6 to 17 years old.

The proposed guidelines could actually compound the nation's childhood obesity epidemic with marketing restrictions that would make healthy foods more expensive for women and children, the poor and the families that can least afford the increase. Given that there is a correlation between childhood obesity and poverty -- with a more than 33-percent obesity rate among adults who earn less than $15,000 per year -- this is hardly an acceptable outcome.

Again, Mr. Cohen is correct that the children's health crisis is real. Childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled since the 1980s, which is hardly surprising considering that children now spend an average of 7.5 hours per day in front of the television, according to a 2010 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Regrettably, they're not getting the physical activity they need in school, either. Only 3.8 percent of elementary schools and 7.9 percent of middle schools are providing daily physical education classes.

Food and beverage producers continue to "voluntarily" change their products in response to what consumers want, offering lower sodium, lower fat, reduced sugar and even gluten-free options --all at lower costs to the consumer. Between 1950 and 2000, the relative price of food fell, on average, by 0.2 percentage points per year.

The government can play a meaningful role in reducing the childhood obesity rate if it refocuses its attention to the real obesity culprits. A smarter government approach would encourage public-private partnerships to reduce poverty, increase healthy and affordable grocery outlets in underserved communities most at risk for obesity, and revisit the importance of physical activity, including safe playgrounds for children living in dangerous neighborhoods.